Most of us remember seeing or hearing about the multiple ABC news broadcasts beginning last March about how meat packers were adulterating the meat we buy in grocery stores and restaurants with a filler called “pink slime.” Other news outlets picked up on the controversy over the filler, which in fact had been reported on before, but which ABC took on as a crusade. Leading with Diane Sawyer’s flagship evening newscast, on which she touted her team’s “startling investigation,” ABC did eleven separate broadcasts about “pink slime” over about four weeks. This culminated in cheerleading and self-congratulatory coverage of consumer groups responding to the ABC reports with campaigns to demand that the major grocery store chains boycott products containing “pink slime.” It was as if Upton Sinclair and his epic novel “The Jungle” that took readers inside the gruesome meat packing plants of the early twentieth century had been reborn in the person of Sawyer and lead on-air reporter Jim Avila.
These multiple reports — hyped by online and social media reports from ABC producers and on-air people, along with promotions on its local news outlets — and the resulting consumer boycott campaigns had such a broad impact that the companies that produce “pink slime” saw their business plummet within a few weeks.
Last week, the leading “pink slime” purveyor, Beef Products, Inc., whose primary operations are in South Dakota, sued ABC. According to its complaint Beef Products quickly lost 60% of its business as a result of the ABC broadcasts and had to lay off 700 of 1,300 employees.
Most of the modest press coverage of the filing of the suit acknowledged the huge hurdles any plaintiff has in a country where the First Amendment protects not only free expression, but those, like ABC, whose expression angers its targets and even causes them ruinous economic harm. That’s true.
Some of the coverage, like this Wall Street Journal report, also focused on Beef Products’ invocation of a South Dakota law “that gives agricultural companies the ability to sue when their products are criticized,” and noted that beef producers had tried unsuccessfully to sue Oprah Winfrey in Texas using the same type of argument that she had disparaged meat products. That’s true, too.